Incineration plans given rough treatment

Experts feel incineration technology a failure

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Mon., May 15, 2006

Sydney - A trio of experts pummeled PCB incineration plans on behalf of the Sierra Club of Canada during a hearing Saturday mostly devoted to the national environmental advocacy group.

Using his experience as a Texas state regulator, Neil Carman said he frequently observed high smoke incidents from exhaust stacks, repeated nuisance smoke and odours from stack emissions, temperature control problems, internal damage, structural damage, operator errors and failure to promptly report incinerator upset conditions.

"Every incinerator experienced problems in the region from one degree to another, but all were described as state-of-the-art incinerators by their design," said Carman. "The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency plans to use a high temperature incinerator for destruction of PCBs, but the plans raise serious public health issues associated with the known hazards of PCB waste incinerators."

Carman then categorically identified incinerator mishaps he examined during his role as a state air pollution investigator. He listed explosions and fires in combustion units, leaks of incompletely burned toxic gases posing serious health concerns, repeated dump stack-bypass vent openings, automatic waste feed cutoffs due to operational problems, air pollution control equipment malfunctions and failures and toxic ash issues. There were also faciltities with significant incinerator corrosion damage, serious equipment and electrical failures, and sensor malfunctions.

"Incineration technology is a serious failure as a waste treatment technology based on information from inspections of incinerators and data on emissions of toxic air contaminants," said Carman. "Dioxins will be produced by the Sydney Tar Ponds PCB incinerator and needs to be continuously measured during all daily PCB sludge incineration to more accurately assess its destruction efficiency and calculate actual stack dioxin emissions."

Carman recommended dioxin stack monitoring, pollutant action levels for the community, and a toxic ambient air monitoring plan.

Dr. Paul Connett, a retiring professor of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University, Canton, N.Y., said improperly burned PCBs produce even more harmful byproducts - dioxins and furans.

"The problem with dioxins and dioxin-like compounds is that we cannot rid ourselves of them once they get into our bodies," said Connett. "They defeat the liver's ability to convert fat soluble substances into water soluble metabolites which can be excreted from the kidney. They thus build up in our fatty tissues."

However, women can rid themselves of the toxins when pregnant and breast feeding. Toxins in a pregnant woman transfers to her unborn child, said Connett.

"I would not recommend incineration because it could make the PCB situation worse, with no fail-safe for local residents," said Connett. "You should be looking for a closed-loop system which limits air emissions. As well, commercial chemical treatments for PCBs including Alkaline hydrolysis; KPEG and reductive dechlorination."

Elizabeth May, the club's former chief executive officer, said the environmental impact statement is one of the worst the club ever reviewed and is padded with unnecessary detail. In comparison, it lacks important detail like the type of incinerator the agency is proposing for PCB incineration and its stabilization and solidification methods.

"The implications of stirring hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sludge contaminated with toxic chemicals capable of volatilizing and migrating off site, are large for human health," said May. "The failure to do more than suggest in vague terms the approach to be pursued is astonishing."

May said that the community will never again have the opportunity presented by a full panel review to obtain clear answers. Nevertheless, answers given by the agency during the process confirms that its burn and bury plan must be rejected.

The agency has "botched" smaller clean up efforts in the past, allowing naphthalene exceedances from the Domtar cleanup while telling the community that the naphthalene odour was a figment of their imaginations, she said.

"Sierra Club of Canada continues to press for a speedy clean up," she said. "Advanced technologies exist to restore the area as a functioning watershed and estuary."

Evidence given at the hearings suggests that the sole criterion the agency used during its technology selection was cost.

"Considering the critical nature of the decision to pursue a combination of incineration, stabilization, solidification and bioremediation in preference to the technologies preferred by the community, it is unacceptable in the extreme that the sole criterion was a cost estimate, prepared in an arbitrary and highly non-transparent manner," said May.

She concluded that expert evidence presented at Saturday's hearing suggested that there are grave doubts that the proposed plan will function to specifications.

"As such, the threat to local health and the environment could continue for decades."

The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency was given 30 minutes to ask questions on the club's presentation. The agency focused on the fact that the community doesn't want further testing, residents want the sites cleaned up, and sensationalizing harm doesn't help the issue.

Chairperson Lesley Griffiths quickly lightened increasing tension in the room when it was suggested the hostile nature of Parker Donham, the agency's spokesperson, and Bruno Marcocchio, a club member, impacted public input.

Griffiths said the questions on the proposed project would be more helpful to the panel. Continuing comments on personalities, "would lead us into heat rather than the light."

Eric Brophy, a concerned resident and former member of the Joint Action Group, used his presentation time to continue his push for a health assessment of residents living near the tar ponds and coke ovens sites. The data would give residents a more complete understanding of their health and answers needed to identify future health risks. It would also give scientists adequate baseline data needed to make proper risk assessments when considering future remediation efforts, he said.

Brophy said he doesn't believe government will fund such a study because there's fear it could be used against them, possibly in a class action lawsuit now underway.

"I look forward to a cleanup, I don't want a delay," he said. "We have to let this community heal."

Brophy told panel members that if they find the environmental impact statement lacks the health information needed to ensure the community is kept safe, then it should recommend a full health assessment before the project begins.

Sierra Club ideas

Remedial activities in residential communities as recommended by Timothy Lambert, Sierra Club of Canada expert:

  • The panel should recommend that the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency develops a plan for care and control of contamination in residential communities and the potential future migration of contamination into the communities. The panel should recommend relocation of residents in close proximity to the coke ovens site and tar ponds.

  • The entire area of the coke ovens should be capped appropriately such that it can serve as parkland or green space for the surrounding residential communities. The land farming activity (proposed for a portion of the coke ovens) has no real purpose given the capping of the areas to be land farmed.

  • With respect to the tar ponds, the panel should recommend JAG recommendation #3. This will serve to reclaim the area to some degree. This will also serve the broader purpose of rebuilding public confidence in the regulatory process. In addition, a barrier wall should be constructed along the perimeter of the slag pile to prevent the further release of contaminants which are known to contaminate the estuary below the slag pile.

  • The panel should recommend the creation of a technical, ethical and legal ombudsmen team. The team would serve to oversee the remedial action plan and address resident concerns that arise with the remedial action plan and implementation. The committee would serve to mitigate future issues with the inherent conflict of interest of the government regulatory agencies.

Cleanup in a click
Web sites that provide information on the joint panel process and the remediation plan include:

Picture not available for caption below:
Timothy Lambert, expert for Sierra Club of Canada, shows a sample of slag during Saturday's panel hearing. The Sierra Club will have a presentation today on its concerns with solidification and stabilization technologies.